Forget truffle oil. It isn’t even made from truffles, just like corn syrup isn’t sugar. But with truffle season in full swing until late December, you can revel in the real deal – “the diamond of the kitchen,” as the 18th-century French gastronome Brillat-Savarin called the fabled, if less poetic, fruiting body of the underground mushroom known for its earthy flavor and heady fragrance.
Next Tuesday, November 15, ellabess, the contemporary American restaurant with the e.e. cummings-style name at The Nolitan hotel, celebrates big with a five-course black and white truffle menu ($150, $70 optional wine pairing) devised by executive chef Troy Unruh. We talked to the St. Paul, Minnesota native about the truffle’s distinctive fragrance, the challenge of using real truffles in desserts and his favorite off-duty food.
You’ve cooked with truffles for years, at Le Bernadin, Jean George and Del Posto, among other places before you came to ellabess earlier this year. What’s their appeal?
White truffles are aromatic and pungent yet sweet. They have an incredible aroma that really comes out when you’re slicing them over a warm dish. Black truffles have a sweeter aroma, a kind of sweet mushroom scent and a less pungent flavor. They also have a firmer texture. And of course, truffles are seasonal, and the white ones are really rare and expensive.
Why are white truffles so expensive?
They have a shorter season, from late October to late December. Truffles can’t be cultivated, so they have to go out and find them. They use dogs more than pigs these days to sniff them out. White truffles normally grow underground in oak groves near oak trees in Piedmont, Italy. This isn’t a great year, and there’s a lot of demand, so prices are high. I saw some today that were $2,400 a pound. Last year was a much better year, and prices were down to $1,600 a pound.
Is it hard for restaurants to get them?
They’re expensive, but they’re readily available. Probably four or five purveyors sell to the top chefs around town. They normally deliver them in person. It’s a lot like buying drugs. They bring a bag to your restaurant, and they pull out the gram scale and weigh them out.
How do you know you’re getting good stuff?
Experience. The smell, the quality. You can see if the truffles are dirty or clean. You might take a little sliver off one and taste it. If it’s a week old, it doesn’t have the same fresh smell.
You’re using white truffles with your rib-eye tartare and black with your butter-poached halibut. How do you decide which strain goes with which dish?
The rib-eye tartar is a variation on a dish from Puglia that’s traditionally made with horsemeat. I’ve done it with lamb and with venison, and this time I decided to go with the dry-aged rib-eye, which has that extra quality of gaminess that should go well with some white truffles shaved on top. For the fish, I liked the visual color contrast. It’s white fish on a white plate with black truffles. The black truffles also add a textural element because they’re firmer than the white and will play nicely against the soft flesh of the fish.
And you’ve got a dessert made with black truffles. Isn’t that unusual?
You normally don’t see truffles in a dessert, so I hope it works. We’re going to chop up black truffles, put them in a chocolate ganache and cover it with white chocolate. It’s truffle synergy. I’m using the black truffle because it’s got a bit sweeter aroma and with the texture, it’ll feel kind of like a nut inside.
How does running a restaurant in a hotel differ from overseeing a free-standing restaurant?
In hotels you have to be a lot more flexible. There’s the addition of room service, catering and banquets so there’s a lot more working parts that have to function. We try to offer approachable, affordable comfort food in keeping with what people want in this economy. This truffle menu is something special for just one night. We like to have something on the menu if people want to come to celebrate a birthday or anniversary, but we also have things that aren’t extremely high priced, like our dry-aged beef hamburger for $16.
What’s your favorite food when you’re off duty?
Tacos. I love Mexican food. My personal favorite is probably grilled corn tortillas with roast pork. I like spices, flavors and chilis.
Any foods you don’t like?
The only food I can think of that I don’t like is beets. Bad childhood experience. But I always have a beet salad on the menu because it’s a crowd pleaser, and I know people really love them.